Review: Rising Stars (Joffrey Ballet)

     
     

Joffrey Ballet sets sights forward with dream-centered showcase

     
     

'Woven Dreams' from Joffrey Ballet's "Rising Stars"

  
Joffrey Ballet presents
   
Rising Stars
   
By Julia Adam, Yuri Possokhov, and Edwaard Liang
at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress (map)
through May 15  | 
tickets: $25-$145  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

By May, whatever sense of pride we Chicagoans feel for having endured another grueling, road-destroying, finger-blistering, mind-numbing winter begins to fade and Bells: Temur Suluashvili & Victoria Jaiani in Joffrey Ballet's 'Rising Stars'is replaced by a mild delirium. The high season for introspective, cerebral work comes to a close–we can’t take it anymore. After the thaw, it’s time to play, not to think.

Just as nights along the lakefront are starting to become more balmy, the Joffrey Ballet presents this appropriately-timed spring offering, showcasing visceral and percussive variations on dreamscapes, sexual awakening and unbridled joy.

Works by choreographers Edwaard Liang, Julia Adam and Yuri Possokhov are prefaced with a short video introduction featuring interviews with the artists and rehearsal footage (see videos below). The stories and themes explored in their dances are pleasantly accessible and do not require blatant explanation–didacticism doesn’t appear to be the goal, though. It looks rather that artistic director Ashley C. Wheater and the Joffrey are making an attempt to enrich its audience and welcome them in to the process of a notoriously mystified art form. The effect is disarming. I found myself openly considering and accepting the individual pieces where I might otherwise have been drawn to decipher them.

     
Night: Anastacia Holden, Derrick Agnoletti in Joffrey Ballet's "Rising Stars" Bells: Temur Suluashvili & Victoria Jaiani in Joffrey Ballet's "Rising Stars"
Night: Amber Neumann, Joanna Wozniak, Christine Rocas in Joffrey Ballet's "Rising Stars" Night: Amber Neumann, Anastacia Holden (center), Derrick Agnoletti in Joffrey Ballet's "Rising Stars"

Marc Chagall’s vibrant, fantastical paintings are the inspiration for Adam’s “Night,” a so-called dance of flight. Matthew Pierce’s perceivably simple, sustained music composition adds to the piece’s sense of exploration and wonder, luring and enticing a young woman to drift, float and soar through her subconscious. Like its theme, the dance is tangential and flows delightfully from one impression-like image to the next. Dreams, literal and not, are a thread through each of the works. That idea is furthered and deepened in Liang’s grand “Woven Dreams,” set to Ravel and Michael Galasso, a large-scale work that considers and plays with the notions of malleable realities and shared-dreaming. Where Liang and Adam provide fantasy, Possokhov basks in drama. In “Bells,“ Rachmaninov underscores a series of unabashed, intensely-sexual duets (with enough conviction, apparently a thigh-slap can suddenly seem R-rated and ballet can look S&M) where relationships are born and die in the same firestorm.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

'Woven Dreams' from Joffrey Ballet's "Rising Stars"

Additional videos HERE

  
  

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Review: The Merry Widow (Joffrey Ballet Chicago)

     
     

Parisian elan, Austrian elegance, Pontevedran panache

     
     

Victoria Jaiani and Miguel Angel Blanco in Joffrey Ballet's 'Merry Widow'.

  
Joffrey Ballet presents
  
The Merry Widow
  
Written by Franz Lehar, adapted by John Lanchberry
Choreographed by
Ronald Hynd
Conducted by
Scott Speck
at
Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $24-$145  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

70 years after Franz Lehar’s beloved operetta debuted in 1905, Ronald Hynd transformed the popular gem into an energetic ballet. Now, 36 years later, the 80-year-old choreographer has brought this polyglot divertissement to Chicago in a sumptuous, two-hour fantasy that takes the Joffrey Ballet into wonderful new waters.

Ensemble from Joffrey Ballet's 'Merry Widow'Though the original vaudevillian and rhapsodic tunes get mixed up among the three acts and the subplot involving an incriminating fan has been mercifully dropped, the story mirrors the original in all that matters. Cultural contrast was always the fuel for the fun. Here it’s the fact that the Pontevedran embassy in Paris needs to hold onto the fortune of the title character, if only to preserve its quaint customs and Balkan folk dances in the midst of the world’s most cosmopolitan center.

Three styles keep both operetta and ballet fascinating throughout. The Embassy ball in the first act harks back to the classic waltzes of Vienna. The Second, set in the villa of the fabulously wealthy Hannah Glawari, delights in pseudo-Pontevedran Polonaises and ethnic novelty numbers. Finally, Lehar drenches the third act in French frivolity as the action moves to Maxim’s, with its can-can grizettes and dapper Parisian dandies straight out of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Since this is ballet, the story, compressed and created by Sir Robert Helpmann, is second to the steps. Unlike the operetta, there’s never any doubt that Hanna will return to her rakish former lover, Count Danilo. (We don’t need to burden our pretty little heads with silly doubts.) There’s little more suspense over the illicit courtship between Valencienne, the Ambassador’s flirtatious French wife, and the handsome French attaché Camille de Rousillon, a nightingale indeed.

The duets between these couples echo the musical styles. Victoria Jaiani’s Hana and Miguel Angel Blanco’s Danilo turn the first act waltzes into surprisingly vertical affairs, with lifts that defy the horizontal swirl of the sweeping melodies. Likewise, Yumelia Garcia’s capricious Valencienne, with her sensuous twirls and bodice-bending dips, finds a perfect partner in Graham Maverick’s quicksiliver, gravity-defying Rousillon. Both blend in beautifully with the galloping gaiety of Maxim’s in full fluorescence.

Ensemble from Joffrey Ballet's 'Merry Widow'

Hynd has given the ensemble glorious moments, whether as gallant members of the Pontevedran entourage or hellbent, high-kicking, skirt-tossing soubrettes making plays for the gentry. They’re impeccably costumed by Italian designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno, while the stenciled facades and imitation marble pillars of the first act, wisteria-laden garden of the second, and monumental cabaret setting of the third act, are also the gorgeous work of the exquisitely talented Di Bagno.

It lasts no longer than it should, since a fantasy should never be pushed beyond its initial allure. As the English say, you should never let daylight shine on magic.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
      
   
Lucas Segovia, Yumelia, Garcia, Matthew_Adamczyk in Joffrey Ballet's 'Merry Widow' Victoria Jaiani as Hannah the wealthy widow in Joffrey Ballet's 'Merry Widow'
Yumelia Garcia and Graham Maverick in Joffrey Ballet's 'The Merry Widow' Christine Rocas, Miguel Angel Blanco, Jaime Hickey in Joffrey Ballet's 'The Merry Widow'

All photos by Herbert Migdoll.

     
     

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REVIEW: The Nutcracker (Joffrey Ballet)

     
     

Sugar plums in your tutu stocking

     
     

Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet 2010

   
Joffrey Ballet presents
   
The Nutcracker
  
Written by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Directed by Robert Joffrey
at Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway (map)
through Dec 26  |  tickets: $25-$145  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Scrooge requires four ghosts to save his dark soul from excess personal savings. George Bailey gets help from an angel desperate to make good and to do it too. But Clara, the heroine of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Christmas ballet, earns her fantasy when she knocks out the Mouse King and frees her adored Nutcracker from his wooden curse. That’s the perfect excuse to dance up a storm—or a blizzard. Yes, it’s that time of year when six “Nutcrackers” hit the Chicago boards, none more splendid or popular than the Joffrey Ballet’s annual confection, a gift from the late Robert Joffrey that keeps on giving.

Miguel Angel Blanco and Victoria Jaiani in The Nutcracker - Joffrey BalletThis year’s spectacle—the 15th since its 1996 Chicago debut–was gloriously unwrapped and heartily cheered at the Auditorium Theatre on Friday night, as it definitely and annually deserves. Oliver Smith’s storybook set design is the perfect backdrop for the Victorian parlor from the 1850s, a magical battleground (against the Mice menace) and Land of Snow for the first half (choreographed by the late Gerald Arpino) and the spring-like Kingdom of Sweet for the second. (There’s enough snow by the end of the first act to satisfy a dozen Chicago blizzards, with some to spare for Minneapolis. That’s why we need the second act to sweeten the scene.)

The communal opening ball is, of course, a showcase for dancers, young and older. These depict the delighted guests at Clara’s beautiful American manse who marvel at Dr. Drosselmeyer’s cavorting automatons. Those mechanical dolls, rigidly presenting their preset terpsichorean displays, are a prelude to the real magic of the enchanted Nutcracker who, under a now-huge Christmas tree, helps Clara to free him from wooden bondage. That of course allows Drosselmeyer and the now humanly handsome Nutcracker to celebrate the victory with the Snow monarchs and their Snowflake corps de ballet, after which the Sugar Plum Fairy and her divertissements continue the fete in the hypoglycemic realm of sugary confections galore.

Anastacia Holden is the delighted Clara who serves as a lucky surrogate for all the kids in the crowd, with slim and elegant Mauro Villanueva as her dashing Nutcracker Prince. (His pas de deux with Yumelia Garcia’s ravishing Sugar Plum Fairy was perfect, precise and even passionate.) The second act’s novelty candy dances from Spain, Arabia, China, Russia and France amounted to a vaudevillian extravaganza in its own right. If the kids were any cuter, they’d explode.

      
Amber Neumann as Chocolate from Spain - Joffrey Ballet Chicago - Photo by Herbert Migdoll Fabrice Calmels and Kara Zimmerman in The Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet
Anastacia Holden in The Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker - Joffrey Ballet 2010

The Chicago Sinfonietta bring Tchaikovsky’s evergreen and everwhite score to generous life, a musical outpouring that ranges from 19th century quadrilles and polkas to waltzes that deserve their own perpetual motion. Hearing it makes you regret his suicide all the more. What marvels would he have composed after 53! That’s a fantasy we can’t indulge.

Speaking of homage, this year’s performance is nobly dedicated to the late Richard Ellis, who danced the role of Drosselmeyer for 27 years in Ruth Page’s Tribune Charities’ production at the Arie Crown Theater.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
  

Children cast in The Nutracker - Joffrey Ballet Chicago - photo by Herbert Migdoll